Actors hang upside down as they deliver soliloquys, some swing from one end of the stage to the other: these are just a couple of antics that feature in veteran director-actor Makarand Deshpande’s plays. Our encounter with the maverick theatre actor-director at his sea-facing Versova apartment, is as remarkable as his celebrated plays. While at one moment, he is imitating Prem Chopra’s baritone, the very next, he breaks into an impromptu rendition of ‘Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan’. And before we realise it, he is reading excerpts from his new book, Ansh, that was released this week.
“Ansh, my company, completes 21 years in 2016, and the book is, in a way, a total recall of all the madness we have created,” says Deshpande, who has penned over 40 full-length plays, 50 short plays and seven children’s plays. The director admits that the initial years of his playwriting were rooted in absurd fantasies, with a measure of the metaphysical. Although the audience was mostly “bemused”, he says “he didn’t care”. “Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) once watched one of my plays, and told me, ‘I didn’t understand what happened, but I enjoyed it’. That was also the general reaction of the audience. They never came to see stories; they came for the madness,” he adds.
In 1996, the director hit a dull patch and was “tired” of his writing. During his year-long sabbatical, he directed Chitra — starring Kay Kay Menon and Sanjna Kapoor — which is an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s dance drama — Chitrangada. He claims that the play changed him as a writer. “Amol Palekar watched it and told me that only on the basis of Chitra, he had decided to travel to any lengths to watch all my work.
I started working more on scriptures and various versions of the Mahabharata. I wrote a play on Ganesha’s birth — Airavat. Satyadev Dubey wanted to make a play on the same subject for a long time, but couldn’t. And when he saw my version, he was thrilled,” says Deshpande, who later went on to co-direct the play Arrest Sudarshan with Dubey, in 2001.
He confesses that his recent plays are closer to reality, but concedes that fantasy is still an essential element of his work. Instead of being puzzled, the audience is “moved” by his newer writing, he feels.
Theatre of dreams
Being part of several college productions, it was only natural that he made his way to Prithvi Theatre post academics. In the late 1980s, he used to perform original one-act plays and platform performances (acts that took place outside Prithvi Theatre) regularly. “There was a new piece by me every week. And anybody could join me. These were filler acts between two shows at the theatre. We performed for free. Tips were welcome. I didn’t perform inside the theatre until 1993, but I was a known face at Prithvi. I was literally living there, working there,” says Deshpande, recounting an interesting incident where he was caught brushing his teeth inside the theatre. “I had fallen asleep writing and working inside the theatre, and that was not allowed,” he laughs.
“You cannot hide from your audience or fool them (at Prithvi). They are so close to you,” he says. But Deshpande doesn’t mince his words as he notes that Prithvi Café, today, has become more of a restaurant, and that the space is filled with people who may not even be watching plays there.
The theatre artist also observes a serious dichotomy in the younger generation: “No doubt, there’s a lot of new writing today and production value has changed for the better. But youngsters are impatient. After acting in a couple of plays, they immediately want to become a director or a writer. Playwriting is a craft, and not many are gifted with the talent. That’s the ugly truth,” says Deshpande.
Through the years
1987: Graduated from NM College, Vile Parle (W).
1988: Started doing platform performances at Prithvi Theatre (filler acts outside the theatre between two plays).
1993: Performed for the first time inside Prithvi Theatre.
1995: Started his theatre company, Ansh, with his first play — Dream Man.
1996: Took a sabbatical from writing for a year. Then, adapted Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada.
2001: He wrote one of his most celebrated plays, Sir, Sir Sarla, which is still running.
2004: Appeared alongside Shah Rukh Khan in Swades in the song, Yun hi chala chal rahi (Swades). It’s one of his most prominent film appearances.
2015: Revived one of his early successes, Kasturi, which starred Ratna Pathak Shah.
What: Ansh by Makarand Deshpande is out now.
Publisher: Malhar Publications
Price: Rs 125